in Profiles | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Let there be light

Self-illuminating furniture

in Profiles | 10 OCT 01

Some of the most unlikely objects have started to glow. Items that used to sit in rooms as the grateful recipients of illumination, such as chairs, sofas, tables and even household brooms, have been transformed into sources of light. There is a straightforward reason for this: contemporary product designers spend a large part of their efforts reinventing the mundane and, right now, it seems that the best way to make something ‘new’ is to make it radiate. But this is not the whole story. Although illumination successfully serves the cause of novelty, by attaching a light source to almost anything, designers not only create a conversation piece but address three of furniture designs current hot concerns: multipurposeness, technological innovation and sculpturality.

I have always been attracted to the idea of multipurposeness: it evokes a simple life spent padding about in linen pyjamas transforming stools into dining tables and back again. Of course, this has little to do with the real world, where as soon as anything becomes a table it is instantly covered in junk and there is scant chance that it will ever revert to its former incarnation. All the same, multipurposeness remains an appealing goal to thwarted minimalists everywhere. In a sparse stool-cum-table kind of environment, illuminated furniture has an important role to play. If something can be both sat on and read by, then you are making serious in-roads into the number of objects needed in any room. Four or five of Daniel Santachiara’s brightly coloured illuminated pouffes, designed for the Italian furniture manufacturer Campeggi, and one elegant low table would pretty much do the trick. If your pouffes don’t cast enough light to see into the corners, don’t worry, they can always be sought out and swept clean using Eddie Mundy’s fibre optic bristle broom.

Quite different from the demand that each piece of furniture doubles its efforts and stands in for two, is the concurrent insistence that furniture in itself is no longer enough. In order to prompt traditionally impassive objects to do more, designers are drafting in new technologies, many of which are based on the emission of light. In this vein, Ron Arad pierced pinholes in the base of his well-known metal Big Easy chair and installed LED displays inside it. When set in a darkened room the chair casts fleeting messages on the walls and ceilings. The effect is spectacular, even if the texts are somewhat … provisional. If a chair is going to tell me something, surely it should be more interesting than ‘on and on and on and on and …’. Also keen to marry new technology and furniture is the designer Ansel Thompson. Through the intervention of coloured filters, Thompson’s translucent Wave chair, an open shell of fibreglass containing flickering fibre optic lights, is able to follow or determine your mood by glowing in any shade that you choose. This is an approach that finds parallels in fashion: Alexander McQueen traced the pin stripes on a sharply cut trouser suit and matching fedora with a pulsing fibre optic thread to create an outfit that has been worn to great effect by the fashion maven Isabella Blow, whose whereabouts and posture were amplified by the suit.

Sculpturality, the third quality that designers aim toward by setting a light source inside furniture, is by far the most nebulous. In the context of furniture design, to say that something is sculptural is to commend its form; sculptural furniture is something that ought to be surrounded, respectfully, by a little empty space. Putting a light inside an object lends it an emphatic formality that allows it to by-pass the need for other formal qualities. Tom Dixon employed this strategy with his Jack Lamp, designed in 1997 and included in the Tate Modern’s ‘Century City’ show. Not particularly lovely in themselves, when piled in a heap and set aglow they could easily become the centrepiece of any modern loft. Along the same lines, at this year’s Milan furniture fair the design group Sputnik showed a glowing sofa crafted from square panels of translucent plastic. The object is very large in proportion to the seating it offers and its hard lines make it quite clear that lounging around isn’t the point. Sputnik’s sofa is a big glowing thing; the kind of object that, were you to keep it around at all, you would have to be doing so for reasons other than practicality.

What is to come of this trend for illuminated furniture? How much further can it go? I have heard of a glowing sink and the radiating fridge must be just around the corner. As well-lit appliances invade every corner of the kitchen, already the Next Big Thing has appeared on the horizon. A popular exhibit at the recent Venice Biennale was a moving table created by artist Max Dean and computer scientist Rafaello D’Andrea. The table danced around a small enclosure, greeting some visitors and retreating from others. It was cute and fun and far better company that something that merely sits and shines. Expect to be met at the front door by your easy chair any day now.